This is a question that is often debated by both sides of the conventional political spectrum. Here’s one person’s take on the issue.
I’d say it depends on how you define “left” and “right.” For instance, the ostensible conservative George W. Bush sought to expand federal control over education, expand the welfare state, implement an amnesty program for illegal immigrants, and engaged in Keynesian economics. These are all positions normally associated with the Left. Yet there’s no question that the U.S. regime became more militarist and police statist during the Bush era. Leftists usually consider such things to be “rightist” but these are distinguishing features of communist states as well. But Republicans like Bush are also business-friendly which puts them on the right in the modern sense.
I’d say both sides on this debate have a point. The U.S. has certainly become more militarily aggressive, police statist, and plutocrat-friendly in the last few decades. Yet the broader society and the resulting social policies have clearly become more “liberal” in the conventional sense. Same-sex marriage, for instance, would have been unthinkable a few decades ago.
I think these trends represent the general value system of the elite. The elite want to make money, wage war when it serves their agenda, and maintain domestic political control. They shudder at the idea of drugs and guns in the hands of poor white trash or inner-city black folks. But they also want to make use of abortions and have whatever kind of sex they want. They tend not to be religious conservatives and look askance at the religious right, except as occasional useful idiots who can be counted on for jingoistic support. They want a global economy and imported labor, so of course they’re pro-immigration and anti-racist.
So the end-game of the policy agenda of the elite seems to be a plutocratic and militarized albeit multicultural and socially liberal police state.
Conservative pundits love to decry the “radical left” in this country, but I don’t see it. Despite all the cries of socialism and Marxism, the radical ideology just isn’t there. While the Republican candidates seem to be racing toward the most extreme position they can manage, America’s left wing is increasingly moderate.
Take the health care bill for example. “Obamacare” was, and still is, called a government takeover of health care and accused of the usual rounds of left-wing extremism, but it wasn’t really that radical. It did create new laws regulations, but the biggest move in the bill was the individual mandate, a requirement that everyone have private insurance.
That’s right, the so-called government takeover actually works through private companies. The government didn’t take over anything. There was talk of a public option, a tax-funded insurance program for the poor, but that was gone by the time the bill passed. Other countries have governments that act as insurers and run hospitals, but ours can’t even try a middle-of-the-road private insurance system without a huge conservative backlash.
Despite the lax liberalism of the Democrats, it seems like they’re being accused of socialism more than ever. President Obama, a moderate who readily makes concessions to the Republicans, is still perceived as a leftist, and is even the subject of a local billboard that labels him a “Wannabe Marxist dictator.” The perception isn’t attributable to the radicalism of his own policies, obviously, but to the radicalism of his conservative counterparts. Someone looking from the Tea Party’s corner of the political spectrum, a corner abounding in tax cuts and border fences, could perceive practically anyone as a socialist ideologue. Obama isn’t actually that liberal, but he appears liberal to the conservatives because their vantage point shifts their perception of him.
That vantage point of the right is drifting farther and farther to the right, both with politicians and voters. Sure, the public may be increasingly accepting of gay rights, and Roe v. Wade hasn’t been overturned, but the Supreme Court gave corporations unlimited campaign contribution, the Christian right has become a major player in national politics, the existence global warming has become a disputed political issue and the Republican Party threatened to make the U.S. default on its debt.
Herman Cain suggested an electrified border fence, Rick Perry promised to do away with the IRS, Mitt Romney openly said that “Corporations are people, my friend,” and don’t get me started on Michele Bachmann. A few weeks ago, showing us just how extreme the right wing is getting, televangelist Pat Robertson told the Republican presidential candidates to stop their race for extremism.
Of course, this is happening during a primary, and the candidates will probably seem more moderate when the general election starts and they dive to the bottom of the barrel to start scraping around for anything with mass appeal. But have the Democrats ever shown this sort of degree of liberal extremism? Liberal politicians — the ones who are still around, anyway — often don’t even identify as liberal anymore. Now, they’re “progressive,” because “liberal” somehow became a dirty word somewhere along the way.
While there may be a radically liberal segment of the public, there certainly isn’t one in Congress. If it can be said that the Republican Party is drifting right, the same is also true of the Democratic Party. Bernie Sanders, the only real socialist in the Senate, was elected as an Independent. The website PoliticalCompass.org did an evaluation of the 2008 presidential candidates in both major primaries, and Dennis Kucinich and Ralph Nader were the only people even placed in the liberal quadrant. Everyone else, Democrats included, scored in the conservative quadrant; the Democrats were just closer to the center. Even though we usually perceive figures like Kucinich and Nader as extremely left wing, the political compass placed them close to the center, saying that even though they are “depicted on the extreme left in an American context, they would simply be mainstream social democrats within the wider political landscape of Europe.”
While Republicans regularly call for an end to the Environmental Protection Agency and suggest an invasion of Iran, how many Democrats suggest anything more radical than cap-and-trade or call for a massive shrinking of the military budget? When the 2007 mortgage crisis hit, the basic plan was to give them loans to tide them over through the recession, i.e., the bailouts. Plenty of Republicans suggested leaving the banks to collapse, but how many Democrats advocated nationalizing banks instead?
While radical beliefs aren’t necessarily bad, and they’re certainly not new to American politics, the recent shift is going one way. A political system with a strong presence in the middle ground is probably the best way to work, if only so the politicians are ready and able to compromise with each other. If neither side tilts too far to one side, things can get done (even if we wish the policies were more in line with our own) because of those people in the middle ground. The trouble is that the middle ground is being filled by the people who used to be on the left.
Brian Hampel is a junior in architecture. Please send all comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.